Man in the middle: Departing state House GOP leader Durkin says Trump so ‘harmful’ to nation that RINO tag is ‘badge of honor’

In a no-holds-barred interview with the Sun-Times, Durkin rates the state’s last five governors, bashes former President Donald Trump and rails on the climate of the state’s Republican Party.

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Illinois House Republican Leader Jim Durkin sits at his desk speaking to one of his staffers Thursday afternoon.

Illinois House Republican leader Jim Durkin said deciding not to seek reappointment to his leadership post wasn’t easy.

Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere/Sun-Times file

He’s part of a vanishing breed in Illinois — a moderate Republican more interested in reaching across the aisle than giving the ruling Democrats the back of his hand.

But Western Springs Republican Jim Durkin is relinquishing his role as House minority leader, a largely thankless job as his party moved further to the right and the state moved further to the left.

In a no-holds-barred interview with the Sun-Times — the 13th one-on-one he gave on Thursday — Durkin rated the state’s last five governors, bashed former President Donald Trump and railed on the current climate of the state’s Republican Party.

And he said being called a RINO is a “badge of honor.”

That stands for “Republican in name only,” a taunt conservatives spit at moderates — and an idea that Durkin argues is killing his party.

“If they take this one approach, which is this 100% allegiance toward conservative values in a party platform, we will continue to have bad elections,” Durkin said of the Illinois Republican Party’s embrace of state Sen. Darren Bailey and other far-right candidates.

Durkin pointed the finger squarely at Trump for many Republicans’ failure to win elections on Tuesday, including in Illinois.

“He’s been harmful to Illinois and a good portion of the United States for Republicans,” Durkin said. “And I believe that he is really responsible for the underperforming on Tuesday.”

Illinois House Republican Leader Jim Durkin sits at his desk on Thursday.

Illinois House Republican Leader Jim Durkin, shown in his Loop office Thursday, said he’s most proud of the public safety legislation he’s passed.

Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere/Sun-Times

The Illinois House is poised to lose four to five seats after Tuesday’s elections, winnowing a super-minority from 45 to 40 or 41 seats. That was the final straw for Durkin, who said he set a goal of winning 48 seats this cycle.

But Durkin was reelected on Tuesday, meaning it’s up to him whether he wants to stay on as a state representative, without his leadership post.

“I have a lot of things going through my head right now, just taking the position that I was going to not seek reappointment as House Republican leader was not an easy decision,” Durkin said. “So I’m in the process of finding where my proper role is for me. ... I haven’t made a decision on that. I’ve got a little bit of time to decide.”

Many believe a Durkin stay in the House is unlikely. But for now, he said he’s prepared to be a voice for Republicans in their fight against the criminal justice package known as the SAFE-T Act, which will see at least some revisions during a veto session that begins next week.

Durkin said he’s most proud of public safety legislation he’s passed, his fight against Sterigenics, a medical device sterilization company that permanently closed its Willowbrook facility after months of controversy over allegations of cancer-causing emissions — and something he helped push on his own through the Department of Health and Human Services.

Because his daughter has Type 1 diabetes, Durkin is very familiar with the use of continuous glucose monitors and test strips.

During the final days of former Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner’s administration, Durkin was able to make his case to the health department to make continuous glucose monitors available through Medicaid and helped to remove a cap for test strips, which some diabetic patients must use once an hour.

“To me, that was something that I’m very, very proud of,” Durkin said. “It’s not something that you legislate and it affects a lot of people. We did it without having to go through the Legislature making a big production out of it.”

Then House Republican Leader Jim Durkin in his office in The Loop in November.

Jim Durkin has served as Illinois House minority leader since 2013.

Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere/Sun-Times file

Durkin, in the Illinois House since 1995 and minority leader since 2013, said he had the best relationship with former Republican Gov. George Ryan. Of former GOP Gov. Jim Edgar, Durkin said, “he was very, very tough to get to.”

The family roots, and school ties with former Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn, ran deep. Both attended Fenwick High School, and Durkin admitted, “We couldn’t agree on anything, but the fact is, we could talk, and we could have a civil conversation.”

Durkin served as the ranking Republican on the Illinois House Special Investigation Committee for the impeachment of former Democratic Gov. Rod Blagojevich.

“That was never anything,” Durkin said of Blagojevich’s term. “That was all just nonsense.”

Durkin called Rauner, someone he supported as Republican leader, “very difficult to work with.”

“I was just very loyal to him, but he was not compromising on anything,” Durkin said.

Despite his high-profile departure, Durkin is urging moderate Republicans to soldier on.

Illinois House Republican Leader Jim Durkin sits at his desk Thursday evening.

Being labeled a “Republican in name only” is a badge of honor in this divisive political climate, Jim Durkin said.

Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere/Sun-Times

“The state wants people who are more to the middle. That’s why we have a bigger independent voting bloc, because of the extremes in both parties. Extremes on both sides dictate the primaries, and that’s what happens in the general elections,” Durkin said.

“Remember the last Republicans who won statewide elections were moderates: Bruce Rauner, Mark Kirk, Judy Baar Topinka, Jim Edgar. Because they were able to present an image of toleration and moderation where the votes count — in the suburbs, the collar counties and parts of the city.

“This is not Mississippi. This is not Idaho.”

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